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Woolsey Fire strikes contaminated Santa Susana Field Lab—should residents be alarmed?

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State senator says he’ll push for an independent investigation

Rocketdyne test lab
The former Rocketdyne facility was the site of a partial nuclear meltdown in 1959.
Associated Press

State officials are unconcerned about the release of any toxic substances that might have been released as the Woolsey Fire burned a portion of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in the Simi Hills, the site is one one of worst nuclear accidents in U.S. history.

Nuclear watchdogs, however, are skeptical.

“It’s just not credible,” Dan Hirsch, president of the nonprofit Committee to Bridge the Gap, an organization that advocates for nuclear safety, tells Curbed. “This is one of the most contaminated sites in the country.”

The California Department of Toxic Substances Control released a statement early Friday saying its scientists and toxicologists “don’t believe that the fire has caused any releases of hazardous materials that would pose a risk to people exposed to the smoke.”

The toxic substances control department alerted residents early Friday morning that the Woolsey Fire had “burned through a portion” of the laboratory, where a long-delayed cleanup of hazardous material has yet to get underway.

Now owned by Boeing, the site was formerly operated by LA-based aeronautics firm Rocketdyne. A partial nuclear meltdown occurred at the site in 1959, and other spills and calamities were recorded in the decades that followed, resulting in nuclear contamination throughout the facility.

Boeing spokesperson Holly Braithwaite tells Curbed that “over half” of the property burned, but “no major structures were damaged” in the fire.

Activists have long said that fires could release contaminants still present at the site into surrounding communities, with potentially dangerous consequences.

Hirsch says that if any structures contaminated with radioactive material burned in the fire, it would pose a “great risk” to anyone nearby.

But even if the blaze left buildings on the site intact, toxic chemicals present in the soil could be transported to other parts of the region in the form of smoke, according to Hirsch.

“You’re worried about the vegetation,” he says. “It’s growing in contaminated soil, and when it burns, toxic chemicals are released into the air.”

In 2009, Norman Riley, who formerly oversaw the Department of Toxic Substances Control’s plans to clean the site, told Pacific Standard that wildfires at the research lab could release diotoxins, which can cause cancer and reproductive problems when humans are exposed to them at high levels.

An independent study commissioned by the state legislature and published in 2006 indicated that work undertaken at the facility may have taken a heavy toll on the community already.

Its authors found that hundreds of cancer cases were likely caused by the 1959 partial meltdown, and that those working in the lab at that time were six to eight times more likely to develop cancer than the survivors of atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Earlier this year, toxic substances control officials confirmed that a cleanup of the site once scheduled to be complete in 2017 would not get underway this year or next.

At a town hall meeting in Woodland Hills Sunday, the department’s deputy director Moshen Nazemi told members of the public that agency staff using portable radiation meters over the weekend “found no elevated levels of radiation” at the site.

Later, State Sen. Henry Stern, whose district encompasses most of the territory burned by the fire, expressed frustration when Nazemi was not on hand to take questions from residents.

He promised to push Governor-elect Gavin Newsom for an independent study of any new health risks associated with the research lab.

“I think there’s an unsatisfying lack of information,” Stern said. “It’s not enough to just say everything’s fine.”